CHEYENNE — In the mornings before school some 20 years ago, Affie Ellis worked with her mother at a dry cleaning business in Jackson, affixing cardboard tubes and spongy fabric on wire hangers before walking to class.
On the weekends, Ellis helped her mother clean motel rooms in the tourist town.
“Our narrative was very much working-class Jackson,” she said of her childhood. “I think anybody who works in Jackson will tell you, there are a lot of folks who have their Monday-through-Friday job, their evening job and their weekend job. And our family definitely fit that narrative.”
These days, 38-year-old Ellis has a law degree and works as a lobbyist in Cheyenne. She’s running as a Republican for Senate District 8 in southwestern Laramie County.
If elected, Ellis, an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, would be the first Native American woman in the Wyoming Legislature, which predominately has older, white men.
Matt Micheli, chairman of the Wyoming GOP, said Ellis possesses many attributes that will make her a good legislator.
“She is extremely smart, hardworking and has a compelling personal story,” he said. “She is without any doubt one of the future leaders of this state.”
She is challenging Democratic Sen. Floyd Esquibel, 78, who has served in the Legislature since 1997 and comes from a prominent Hispanic Democratic family in Wyoming’s capital.
Ellis has raised just over $57,000, making her the top fundraiser of all legislative candidates this year, according to the latest round of campaign finance reports. That includes over $10,000 from herself and her immediate family.
Esquibel has raised just over $12,800, including a little over $1,300 in personal funds.
If she’s elected, Ellis said she will either transition her company away from lobbying or perhaps return to practicing law. Her clients are Chesapeake Energy; Children’s Hospital Colorado; K-12 Inc., which provides the curriculum for the Wyoming Virtual Academy; and until recently, BNSF Railway.
Ellis is one of two Native American candidates. The other is Democrat Sergio Maldonado, an enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, who is running for House District 33 in a bid to unseat Rep. Jim Allen, R-Lander.
Ellis said she’s running because she has three children and is concerned about the how the state is going to prioritize money. The ongoing downturn in oil, gas and coal has shrunk revenues.
“I still think government should look at ways of operating more efficiently,” she said. “I do think that means budget cuts.”
Job losses throughout the state have hit her family and friends.
“This notion that government can’t be reflective of our economy or our population base doesn’t seem terribly realistic,” she said.
The University of Wyoming has offered employees early retirement to save money. She said other parts of the state need to look at similar options.
“I think Floyd is a very nice person who has always been very kind and gracious whenever I’ve interacted with him,” Ellis said of her opponent. “He has served Wyoming for 20 years. And I think the question after serving that amount of time is, What more am I working on and successfully getting done in the Legislature? And I just think it’s time for people to bring new ideas in.”
The Senate district roughly spans south of Interstate 80 and Pershing Boulevard to the Colorado line and from the South Greeley Highway to the Albany County line.
All the schools in the district are Title I, meaning a high percentage of the students come from low-income families.
Ellis knows some people in the district would benefit from Medicaid expansion, but she hasn’t made up her mind about the program. It’ll cost money for the state to expand, and she doesn’t know if it’s right to cut services from one group to expand Medicaid to another, she said.
For four years the Legislature has rejected Medicaid expansion, meaning the state lost out on the federal government’s 100 percent coverage of the costs. The state’s share of medical costs, combined with administrative expenses, would be $6.1 million for the current year, said Kim Deti of the Wyoming Department of Health. The costs are expected to increase each year through 2021.
The Health Department argues the program is nonetheless an economic generator since the money goes to hospitals, doctors and clinics, Deti said.
Esquibel, the incumbent, supports expanding the Medicaid program under Obamacare.
“I would think with all the information that’s been provided, pro and con, you’d think a person would have an opinion one way or the other,” he said about Ellis. “I support Medicaid expansion. About eight years ago, I sponsored some legislation to have the Wyoming Health Commission do a study to look into universal health care in Wyoming. It failed introduction, which I kind of expected that it would. I wanted the debate to at least be held.”
Ellis and her opponent also diverge on the gender-pay gap. Wyoming’s gap in 2015 was the largest in the country, with women earning 64 cents to every dollar a man earned.
Ellis noted men and women work different types of jobs with different earnings.
“Some of these jobs — as they require immense amounts of time away, either out working in the oil fields, on a train — it’s difficult for me to see that even with a woman with adequate childcare would make that work,” she said. “But for some of those other industries that don’t require so much mobility or risk, I do think it’s important that we support local organizations like CLIMB.”
CLIMB Wyoming is a nonprofit that has trained women for jobs in Wyoming’s high-paying industries. Ellis’ company has supported it for five years, she said.
“I will say a strong economy helps companies and businesses like mine have funds to be able to invest more in nonprofit groups,” she said.
Esquibel said the pay gap is because many high-paying jobs aren’t available to women. He noted a 37-year law professor at Denver University is suing for back pay because she earned less than every other male professor, even those hired after her. The school is defending itself, saying her research, teaching and scholarship were substandard.
“It’s happening in our region,” he said. “I guess the point I want to make is DU is a prestigious law school, people know what the law is, but for whatever reason, because she’s a female she’s being paid $20,000 less than her male colleagues.”
Esquibel and his brother Ken Esquibel, a state representative who is also running for the Senate as a Democrat, are the sons of Martin Esquibel, who was involved in Democratic politics over the years. Martin Esquibel was a union activist for the Teamsters, railroad unions and the AFL-CIO and a volunteer for several community organizations, Floyd Esquibel said.
The senator said he knows his constituency since he’s lived in the district the majority of his life. He’s been involved in many organizations – from the library board to Magic City Enterprises, a group that works with disabled people.
Esquibel said his legislation making it illegal for drivers to text has probably saved lives.
He said he hopes to be re-elected to another term because he thinks it’s important during the revenue shortfall to look for solutions, and ensure the most vulnerable people aren’t hurt by cuts.
“Some of the people are lower-income, disabled, elderly,” he said. “They don’t have a belt to tighten.”
He was involved in the building of a parking garage next to the Capitol, and he worked to create a toll-free hotline for constituents to call their legislators during session, informing them on how to vote for bills, Esquibel said.
He knows Ellis has raised more money than him.
“But I just do what I can,” he said. “And let someone else do what they can.”
Ellis’ parents are from the Navajo reservation, which is located in the Four Corners region, where the borders of where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico touch.
In the 1950s, she said, there was a push to provide American Indians a trade education. Both of her parents attended a Catholic boarding school in Brigham City, Utah.
“My dad’s father, my grandfather, was a renowned Navajo silversmith,” she said. “And they thought, ‘Well, we need welders, how about you be a welder?’ So that was my dad’s trade and after he and my mom graduated. They moved to Wyoming, in Jackson, where they started a small business.”
Her father still has his welding shop, she said.
Ellis didn’t spend a lot of time on the reservation as a child, but her family maintained some cultural beliefs and practices, such as their Catholic faith, she said.
She attended the University of Wyoming on a scholarship and law school at the University of Colorado in Boulder and delved into the study of American Indian history, law and policy. As an adult, she’s traveled to the reservation – her children are enrolled members of the tribe, too – and has connected with relatives.
Between her undergraduate and law degrees, Ellis worked in Washington for Sen. Craig Thomas of Wyoming. From 2011 to 2014, she traveled the country with other members of a commission that listened to Native Americans talk about the need to make their communities safer. They took in testimony and wrote a report with 42 ideas that they presented to Congress and President Barack Obama.
“It was such a rewarding experience that (what) I hope to bring again to the Wyoming Legislature is listening, looking for ideas, looking for opportunities and doing what’s right and doing what’s best,” she said.